In the tiny Apache County community of Whiteriver -- where almost every home sports some type of hoop and 5-year-olds can dribble between their legs -- basketball is said to be king.
Wrestling is mostly an afterthought.
And how can one argue with that premise when the local high school -- Alchesay -- attracted former NBA great Kareem Abdul Jabbar to its coaching ranks last season?
The unlikely union of the Falcons and the basketball legend reached national proportions last year when Sports Illustrated featured the program.
But the dominance of the hoop game in Whiteriver won't diminish the importance of tomorrow's (Wednesday) 6 p.m. clash pitting the Falcons against the four-time defending state champion Longhorns.
The mat battle in Wilson dome represents an all-important East Division contest -- the results will go a long way in deciding the fortunes of both teams at season's end.
Also, Horns wrestlers and coaches realize Whiteriver is the home of enough good athletes to field competitive teams in both basketball and wrestling.
If the Horns can slip past the Falcons, the team would own a 3-0 record entering the school district's holiday vacation recess.
That point in the schedule is a milestone in which PHS head coach Dennis Pirch has long-used the respite as invaluable practice time to fine tune his athletes for the stretch run.
Payson opened the division campaign with a 50-12 win over Round Valley on Dec. 1. One week later, Dec. 8, the Horns whipped a formidable Show Low Cougars' squad 56-21. Both matches were contested in Wilson dome.
Caging of the cats
Prior to the match against Show Low, Pirch labeled the Cougars a very potent team sporting a bevy of good athletes several of whom helped SL earn the state football championship three weeks ago.
Just as Pirch had suspected, the Cougar lineup featured several big, strong youngsters -- two of whom were John McQuillian and Scott Croft.
McQuillian, competing in the 215-pound class, had little trouble disposing of Payson's Matt Walker -- pinning him in the first period after building a 7-1 lead.
In the heavyweight (275 pounds) battle, Croft -- who attended eighth-grade at Rim Country Middle School -- overpowered the Horns' Dustin Attebury, chalking up a fall early in the first period.
Another former Cougar football player, Brady Merrill, also gave the Horns fits, edging Doyle Van Horn 12-6 in the 152-pound battle.
The Horn cause, however, suffered only one other setback to the Cougars, losing the 130-pound competition when Cougar Tim Williams pinned Jerry Baker late in the third period.
Freshman Matt McCarty got the Horns off and stampeding with a 13-5 major decision in the 103-pound mat battle.
The Rim country freshman onslaught continued in the 112-pound battle when plebe Zack Lee won on a fall.
After Justin Cline (119) was awarded a forfeit, Aaron Bratholt (125) pushed the Horns' lead to 22-0 with a fall.
Baker's loss put points on the board for Show Low, but defending state champion R.C. LaHaye (135) immediately upped the Horns' lead to 28-6 by posting a victory by a fall.
Justin McCarty (140) copped a 15-3 decision and Levi Armstrong (145) was awarded a forfeit to keep the Horn express steaming toward a triumph.
Payson's lead became unsurmountable when it reached 44-6 by virtue of Caleb Miller's (152) pin of his cat foe in the first stanza.
Van Horn's loss gave the Cougar's a ray of hope, but Rocky Berry (171) quickly doused the glimmer winning by a fall.
Jimbo Armstrong put the wraps on the Horns' victory parade by pinning Show Low's Brad Owens in the 189-pound match with 29 seconds remaining in the first period.
In addition to tomorrow's clash against Alchesay, the Longhorns will be facing even more stiff challenges at the upcoming Rim Country Duals tournament.
Schedules had not been finalized at press time, but action is scheduled to tip-off Friday afternoon in Wilson dome and wrap up Saturday evening with the championship finals.